Is the Front National the acceptable or the unacceptable face of populism? It was one of the few points of contention in an absorbing 90 minutes of discussion about the meaning of the French presidential election, expertly conducted by Andrew Neil.
The day before Wednesday’s Spectator debate I had heard the celebrated French intellectual, Bernard Henri-Levy, regretting the fraying of the 'Republican front' against the 'fascist' Front National. On Wednesday night at The Spectator event, Dominique Moisi used the same term. Fascist? Could more than a third of French voters be about to vote for a fascist party?
At least one man in the audience who, daringly, confessed to being a Front National supporter challenged this view of the party. And the argument did highlight a fascinating, and worrying, asymmetry in the way we think about changing political views: people on the left are allowed to change their minds, people on the right, especially the far right, are assumed never to really change. Anne-Elisabeth Moutet used the biological metaphor of a form of bacteria that never really changes its nature but can lie dormant for a while and then the true Front National bacillus will reveal itself again.
How many former Trotskyists sat around Tony Blair’s cabinet table? They were allowed to change their minds, come in from the extremist cold, and become moderate social democrats. To people on the far right we do not extend the same opportunity.
It is, of course, true that the Front National has grown out of some unpleasant political traditions: Catholic anti-semitism, Vichy, the Action Francaise anti-Dreyfus tradition. But why should we not believe them when they say they have changed? Marine Le Pen has broken with her father about as publicly and clearly as possible on Holocaust denial and so on. The party is now a supporter of Laicite not of the Catholic anti-Dreyfus tradition.
We don’t have to like the Front National’s policies on immigration (and particularly Muslim immigration) or economic protectionism but they are surely more accurately described as nostalgist than fascist.
The consensus of the evening followed the opinion polls in seeing a comfortable Macron victory in the second round. But after that, thought Jonathan Fenby, the deluge. With representatives of none of the mainstream parties in the second round and a President Macron who is likely to have few party allies in the national assembly the immediate future could be bumpy. Could disaffected trade unionists and disaffected protectionist FN supporters join forces to block the Macron liberal project?
What does a Macron presidency mean for us? It was an after-thought to the evening’s discussion and for once our panelists seemed to miss a trick. They all assumed that Macron’s EU enthusiasm would make him an advocate of a hard line against Britain in the coming Brexit negotiations. What no-one seemed to have noticed is that Macron’s main adviser on EU matters is Jean Pisani-Ferry, of the Bruegel think tank. He wrote an interesting paper last summer (along with the former deputy governor of the Bank of England Paul Tucker, among others) advocating a very soft Brexit and a new form of collaboration between Britain and the EU. But this is a minor reservation about an engrossing discussion on a complex and confusing subject that was, at least briefly, brought into some sort of focus with wit and style.
David Goodhart is head of the Demography unit at Policy Exchange and author of 'The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics'.